Speculations on the Historiographical Turn in Contemporary Art

Post by Elisa Adami

The contemporary art panorama is characterized by an increasing obsession with the past and the physical objects in which it materializes. Monuments, ruins, archives, old photographs, found-footage, abandoned items, obsolete technologies, debris and trash of interrupted lives, feature more and more frequently as a catalysts of and focus in many art exhibitions.

After the artist-as-curator, a new hybrid figure has emerged: the artist-as-historian. In his essay, precisely entitled ‘The Artist as Historian’, Mark Godfrey shows how “historical research and representation appear central to contemporary art”. Yet, what really characterizes contemporary artists as historians is not the historical content of their works, but the modus operandi they employ. As Godfrey continues, “there are an increasing number of artists whose practice starts with research in archives, and others who deploy what has been termed an archival form of research” (142–143). The places and instruments traditionally related with historical studies – the archive, the archaeological excavation, the historiographical survey and the museum display – have become a repository of ideas, prompts and even formal and aesthetic models for art making.

In his article ‘The Way of the Shovel’, Dieter Roelstraete suggests the role of the historiographer as a job description more accurate with regard to contemporary art practices. He points out that the act of “writing”, or even better “re-writing” history, is more appropriate to connote the current tendencies. Many contemporary artists are engaged in attempts of historical revisionism, either through a critique of official and ideological representations, or through a revelation of the downtrodden, the neglected and the forgotten: all that which lies in the unrepresented corners of history.

Beyond these disputes on professional labels, the current obsession of contemporary art with the past has become undeniable. But what are the reasons of this historiographical (or historical) turn? Why do the artists (and we with them) look back?
Following the trains of thoughts of different thinkers and philosophers, I will try to compile a brief and synthetic list of the main triggers of this nostalgic plague.


Still from Tacita Dean, Kodak, 2008

Still from Tacita Dean, Kodak, 2008

The melancholic malady has affected not only the artistic and academic field, but it has manifested also at an hobbystic and amatorial level in phenomena such as the vintage craze or the re-enactments of old popular traditions. Andreas Huyssen has explained this disease and contagion by referring to a purely technological reason. In the obsession with the past, he sees an attempt “to recover a mode of contemplation outside the universe of simulation and fast-speed information and cable networks; to claim some anchoring space in a world of puzzling and often threatening heterogeneity, non synchronicity and informed overload”. The past becomes “a new mooring” in an age of uncertainty and digital transition1. The fascination with and almost fetishistic attachment for material and analogue objects is, according to Huyssen, a reaction against and resistance to the advance of a new technological temporality, which appears to be devoid of any historical weight.

In his analysis of photographic-based artworks concerned with the representation of the past, Godfrey draws similar conclusions. He affirms: “perhaps it is the approaching digitization of all photographic mediums that sensitises artists to the way in which such mediums used to serve as records of the past – and these sensitivity provokes artists to make work about the past” (145). In conclusion, the fear of a digital oblivion makes artists particularly responsive to what we are about to lose and what we have already lost. Their works become elegies to a world about to set.


Goshka Macuga, When Was Modernism, 2008. Mixed media, installation at Museum voor Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen (MuHKA).

Goshka Macuga, When Was Modernism, 2008. Mixed media, installation at Museum voor Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen (MuHKA).

In ‘After the Historiographical Turn’, Roelstraete appeals to the desolation of the present in order to explain the refuge into the past.

For, in truth, (…) there haven’t been too many good reasons to fully and optimistically engage with either the present or the future in the last half decade or so: the historiographic turn in art, which of course has been under way much longer than that, really took on the shape of a fully-fledged trend or movement in art (what should we call it?) in the early years of the twenty-first century; in other words, it was in a sense inaugurated by the events of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent “war on terror” which has done so much to make the first decade of this century such a gloomy, depressing affair. This “new historicism” (is that what we should call it?) is really nothing other—like it or not—than the art of the Bush era.

According to this explanation, the withdrawal from the present and the obsession with the past is an escapist strategy, a melancholic and potentially reactionary derive which inevitably prevents artists from intervening in the reality and from changing – or at least trying to change – its course. Roelstraete’s opinion on this tendency is rather harsh: he rightly points out that “art’s obsession with the past, however recently lived, effectively closes it off from other, possibly more pressing obligations, namely that of imagining the future, of imagining the world otherwise (‘differently’)”.


If the past insists, it is because of life’s unavoidable demand to activate
in the present the seeds of its burial futures”.

Walter Benjamin.

Jane and Louise Wilson, Still from A Free and Anonimous Monument, 2003

Still from Jane and Louise Wilson, A Free and Anonimous Monument, 2003

In the post-ideological era, what we have lost is the idea of an infinite historical perspective, that is the notion of a project which will eventually lead us to a better future society. The future-oriented plans intrinsic to the Communist ideology and the modernist utopia have been shattered, leaving behind a not yet filled void. The old optimistic faith in the future has been replaced with suspicion and disillusion for long-term projects and promises. In the article ‘Comrades of Time’, Boris Groys describes the contemporary as a time constituted “by doubt, hesitation, indecision – by the need for prolonged reflection, for a delay. We want to postpone our decisions and actions in order to have more time for analysis, reflection, and consideration”.

The object of these analysis, reflections and considerations is nothing but the past. Or to be more precise, what is under scrutiny is the modern project that was conceived in the past. Far from being rejected, the modern project is subjected to endless reconsiderations. Icons and symbols of the historical avant-garde, as well as old utopian dreams and projects, often reappear in the works of many contemporary artists. The pressing question that these artworks raise is: Can we dust off and re-use old projects for the future? Is it possible to brush up and re-implement them in the present? In other words: Can we reactivate the futures contained in the buried seeds of the past?

1 Andreas Huyssen, Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia, (New York; London: Routledge, 1995), p.7

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